Author Topic: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?  (Read 2989 times)

EmFrugal

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Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« on: October 18, 2017, 09:52:27 AM »
A little background info:

We live in a three story townhome built on a concrete slab and our main living area is on the bottom level (there is no basement). We spend the majority of our time on the bottom because it includes our kitchen and family room/living room. Upper floors are bedrooms and a playroom area for kids. The downstairs kitchen/family room area (where we spend the most time) is probably 500-600 sq ft.

Our furnace is located on the third floor so consequently the top floor is sweltering, the middle floor is perfect (this is where the thermostat control is), and the bottom floor is freezing. We have a ventless gas fireplace on the bottom floor. We used that to heat the downstairs last year but the smell was pretty bad and I don't like the thought of what my family is breathing in. I keep reading that ventless units are not great for air quality and that technically you should open a window... that seems to defeat the purpose when it is 20 degrees outside. So I'm planning to just forego the fireplace altogether.

All of this being said, how would you recommend keeping our downstairs warm? I'm looking at electric wall heaters, space heaters, etc but am wondering how much that will affect our electricity consumption and if there is an option that is the most or more efficient that I haven't thought of? If I just cut our furnace down to 60 in the cold months and run the electric heaters when we are downstairs, would that make the most sense? I have thee little kids ranging from 20 months to six years and while we definitely wear extra layers, the downstairs is unbearable without sufficient heat in the winter.

Thanks for any thoughts on how to solve this efficiently!

sokoloff

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #1 on: October 18, 2017, 09:58:03 AM »
A few more details, please.

You say "furnace". Confirm that you mean forced hot air here.

If FHA, what is the ductwork situation like? Where are the supplies and returns located? Have you tried blocking off or partially damping off some of the supplies on the higher floor(s)? If you block off the supplies entirely to the top floor, what happens?

Do you have access to the ducts such that you could zone the system (electrically actuated dampers that would provide for a T-stat on the bottom, middle, and top floors with [semi] independent control)?

CowboyAndIndian

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #2 on: October 18, 2017, 10:03:01 AM »
I am assuming you have forced air heat/cool systems.

Hot air rises and cold air sinks. So, you need to  manage your vents.

In the summer, open vents  fully in the top level, half way thru in the 2nd level and close the vents in the bottom level. Cold air from the 3rd and second level will flow down to the bottom level.

In winter, open vents fully in the bottom level, half way thru in the 2nd level and closed in the top level. Hot air from the bottom/2nd level will rise and heat the 3rd level.

Another suggestion. Do you have any insulation between the slab and your feet. You can add some insulation by building a sub-floor, but this will take away from the ceiling height. You can add electric heating under the floor. One advantage of this method is that when your feet are warm, the room temperature matters less.

EmFrugal

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #3 on: October 18, 2017, 10:48:01 AM »
Yes, forced air.

I'd forgotten about adjusting the vents on all levels. We've done that in the past and it helped a little. There is no sub-floor, which is a big part of the problem. These were built in 2000 and the ceilings are high so I think a sub-floor would be fine in that regard.

It's an on-going issue in our entire townhome community. Some residents have replaced the windows as well but that has only marginally helped.

In terms of a zone system, I don't know the answer off hand. I'll have to research and see if it's feasible, but it would definitely be more practical.

Thanks for the ideas so far.


topshot

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #4 on: October 18, 2017, 01:20:12 PM »
Aside from adjusting all the vents, you could also try installing a remote thermostat that will set on the bottom floor. I personally used this one. You would need a compatible Honeywell wireless thermostat for it to work and you ideally have the C wire from your furnace available where your current tstat is mounted (5 wires total instead of just 4).

GreenEggs

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #5 on: October 18, 2017, 02:01:52 PM »
Heat rises, so you need most of the heat output on the lowest level.  I'd try closing all of the vents except the downstairs ones and see how that does. 

Place a thermometer on each floor to see what temps each level is.

Btw, we use unvented gas heat as our main heat and don't have odor issues.  Our mountain cabin only has a propane heater and a woodstove downstairs and no heat upstairs for the bedrooms.  Our other place is a single story with a heatpump, but we use an unvented natural gas heater instead.  The only time I smell an odor is when we first turn them on again in the Fall, after they've been off for the warm months.  We do use carbon monoxide detectors.  We also use ceiling fans all year to circulate the air & the temps.

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Fishindude

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #6 on: October 19, 2017, 07:02:07 AM »
Sounds like a terrible design.   You are correct that unvented gas fireplaces are stinky nasty and likely unhealthy.   You are also correct in thinking that electric heaters will be expensive.
I'd probably look to install some type of small supplemental, forced air (vented) gas heat for this floor.   Talk to some local HVAC contractors for recommendations.

lthenderson

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #7 on: October 19, 2017, 07:54:22 AM »
Like others said, the first thing I would do is play around with the registers to force more air lower during the winter months.

However, your post triggered a memory of how we used to heat the outlying rooms in our large multistory farmhouse back when we only had one wood stove in the center. We built solar window box heaters using old windows. If you google online, they make some much nicer looking and much smaller footprint ones (probably more efficient as well) that can be purchased at large box hardware stores these days. It's a free source of energy other than initial cost and doesn't smell at all.  The ones we built were large and bulky but could heat a room by themselves on all but the coldest sunny days.

CowboyAndIndian

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #8 on: October 19, 2017, 08:27:08 AM »
I am assuming you have forced air heat/cool systems.

Hot air rises and cold air sinks. So, you need to  manage your vents.

In the summer, open vents  fully in the top level, half way thru in the 2nd level and close the vents in the bottom level. Cold air from the 3rd and second level will flow down to the bottom level.

In winter, open vents fully in the bottom level, half way thru in the 2nd level and closed in the top level. Hot air from the bottom/2nd level will rise and heat the 3rd level.

Another suggestion. Do you have any insulation between the slab and your feet. You can add some insulation by building a sub-floor, but this will take away from the ceiling height. You can add electric heating under the floor. One advantage of this method is that when your feet are warm, the room temperature matters less.

One more important thing. Make sure the fan runs all the time. This helps in redistributing the heat.

On your thermostat, the fan should have 2 positions (auto and On). Make sure it is in the On position and it runs all the time.
« Last Edit: October 20, 2017, 07:34:07 AM by CowboyAndIndian »

EarthSurfer

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #9 on: October 19, 2017, 11:27:43 PM »
My townhouse seemed to have the opposite problem in the summer!

The designer for the HVAC system added a separate thermostat on the upmost level to control the fan for air circulation. I would set this thermostat a few degrees above the thermostat on the middle level. The fan would cut on an circulate the air from the cooler area to the upstairs bedroom.

As the previous poster mentioned, try keeping the thermostat in "FAN ON" mode and see if it helps address the issue.
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CowboyAndIndian

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #10 on: October 20, 2017, 07:34:42 AM »
So, did any of our suggestions work?

EmFrugal

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #11 on: October 20, 2017, 01:32:32 PM »
Apologies for the delayed response. The temps outdoors went up and my immediate issue temporarily went away.

That being said, these are all awesome suggestions. I so appreciate the insight. I'm going to start testing some out when I have to turn the heat on again. I think that if I can get a thermostat control on the bottom level, combined with shutting the vents in the upper two, that would help make things much more bearable. And the fan on reminder is especially helpful.

EricEng

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #12 on: October 23, 2017, 02:27:14 PM »
I used to live in a 4 story townhome with a large central stairwell.  What helped immensely was stair curtains. Example linked below but you can find more just googling.  Most of the heat and cool just flowed straight up the stairway until I put these in.

https://global.rakuten.com/en/store/futon/item/kas-tw30/

EmFrugal

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #13 on: October 24, 2017, 12:04:05 PM »
The stair curtains are an interesting idea. Our stairwell has a 20+ foot ceiling so it would be really difficult to hang something long enough, but I'm sure a lot of the heat escapes up those... especially with the high ceiling.

Once the temperatures go back down, I'll let you guys know how some of these tips work out.

EricEng

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #14 on: October 24, 2017, 04:27:47 PM »
Yeah, depends all on your stair designs.  My stairs were all closed off and tight (pain getting furniture up), but were easy to insulate via a curtain.  You could feel the heat flowing up before them.  Might not be much you can do about that if it's a wide open space.  It's like trying to heat a house with a garage door size window open.

trammatic

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #15 on: October 25, 2017, 07:29:17 AM »
So I think the key here is isolating the ground floor with a door or curtains or something.  Once the room is closed in, I've had some good success with plug-in wall-mount heating panels for about the same electricity price as using the HVAC fan.  They also make duct booster fans that can be installed in line to help pull more air down to the first floor.  Good luck!

dilinger

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #16 on: October 26, 2017, 02:22:06 PM »
Another suggestion. Do you have any insulation between the slab and your feet. You can add some insulation by building a sub-floor, but this will take away from the ceiling height. You can add electric heating under the floor. One advantage of this method is that when your feet are warm, the room temperature matters less.

I second this.  If you don't mind redoing the floor, add an inch or two of XPS rigid foam on top of the slab (taped but not glued down), OSB on top of that, and then your choice of flooring.  It will make a world of difference, especially if your house is air sealed.

If your house *isn't* airsealed, do that first.  Otherwise, you will get what's known as a stack effect (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stack_effect).  Hot air will escape from the top of your house, creating negative pressure that sucks in cold outside air into the bottom of your house.  Stop that air from escaping, and you'll keep the temperature a bit more stable.

And, of course, there's always a mini split heat pump.  A single head unit on your bottom floor will keep it toasty, so long as the air isn't escaping outside.  The operating cost will be much cheaper than a space heater, but the installation cost will be more.

Start with air sealing, then slab insulation, then supplemental heating.

Ocinfo

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Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #17 on: October 26, 2017, 03:13:11 PM »
Yes, forced air.

I'd forgotten about adjusting the vents on all levels. We've done that in the past and it helped a little. There is no sub-floor, which is a big part of the problem. These were built in 2000 and the ceilings are high so I think a sub-floor would be fine in that regard.

It's an on-going issue in our entire townhome community. Some residents have replaced the windows as well but that has only marginally helped.

In terms of a zone system, I don't know the answer off hand. I'll have to research and see if it's feasible, but it would definitely be more practical.

Thanks for the ideas so far.

I lived in a similar (in Northern VA) but even worse unit built around the same time. The second level was partially over a garage, which was not at all properly insulated. Floor temp could easily be 20+ degrees colder than the half over the indoor first level. The actual first level could be used as a refrigerator in winter. Third level could not be cooled in summer. This was with blocking vents, etc...

Basically, it’s poor construction (cheap) that really just needs corrected in the long term. Likely some type of subfloor, preferably with some type of radiant heat. Also, installing the various HVAC zone dampers and thermostats. A curtain on the stairwell, closing vents, and running the fan 24/7 (should be under $1 in electric per day) are probably your lowest cost immediate options.

It’s almost criminal how badly units around that time were designed/built. The giant staircase, high ceilings, poor insulation, and non-zoned HVAC are just nuts.


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EmFrugal

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #18 on: January 06, 2018, 12:40:18 PM »
Now that it is January and officially miserably cold in the DC area, I wanted to write a quick update. You will laugh and face punch me, but my bottom floor is warm now. Here is why.

Little known to my non-handy self, my non-handy husband, and many of our non-handy neighbors our three story town home complex has two dampers. One for the first and second floor and one I like to call the secret hidden damper apparently many were not aware existed. It is tucked back behind duct work and you heave to lean around to find it.

After 4.5 years of living here (with an HVAC contract mind you), I learned from a new technician (shortly after this post) that A) the second damper to the third floor existed and B) summer and winter were labeled incorrectly. As soon as he showed me this damper and proceeded to close it to the incorrect label of summer (which shut off all heat to the third floor), all the air flow suddenly came down to the first floor. Then it rose nicely to warm the upper floors.

We closed the vents on the second and third floors like usual, but this second damper discovery made all the difference. My floors are no longer ice blocks and it is pleasant. In time we will likely make additional improvements to replace drafty windows, etc. But for now, I am warm on my bottom floor for the first time.

Honestly this has been a huge revelation for me that I was also able to share with many neighbors. And I thank all of you for helping me think things through! I have a learning curve for sure, but every little bit helps and makes me feel more empowered as a homeowner. So thanks!

GreenEggs

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #19 on: January 06, 2018, 01:09:00 PM »
Glad to hear you figured it out.  :)
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Sibley

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Re: Best Way To Heat A Freezing Main Level in Townhome?
« Reply #20 on: January 06, 2018, 04:18:55 PM »
Ha, that's awesome! Make sure you fix the labels if you haven't already, and I'd put a note on the wall where it's easier to see :)

Glad you're warm now.